It starts with the sound of massed armies approaching and ends with a single dying power chord: it's called Apocalypse Please and it's the opening track on Muse's extraordinary new album Absolution. From here on in it's a non-stop lunatic ride through some of the grandest, most unashamedly epic guitar music ever created, taking in mournful death marches (Blackout), sound-and-fury riffing (Stockholm Syndrome), and thunderous end-of-the-world anthems (Time Is Running Out). In the months leading up to the album's release, Matt Bellamy told the press that the coming Muse record would be more 'uplifting' than previous efforts. We needn't have worried. From its portentous opening bars to its final, desolate climax, Absolution is about as 'uplifting' as a nuclear holocaust.
Unsurprisingly, given its sheer scale and scope, Absolution was not an easy record to make. Sessions began in September 2003, but after three months the band found themselves with little to show for their efforts. It took a new producer and a change of location to finally get the creative cylinders firing. "The first songs we started recording for the album were Butterflies And Hurricanes and Blackout," recalls Matt. "We'd been working with a producer called Paul Reeve, who was the guy we worked with right back in the beginning. We tried to go for a mixture of a lot of strings and a lot of choral backing vocals, and those two songs worked really well in that way, but when we tried to use that technique on a couple of other songs, it didn't work.
"So we decided to take a break from it over Christmas. When we came back in the New Year we opted to work with this guy Rich Costey (Rage Against The Machine, The Mars Volta) and it all took on a more minimalist approach." Of course, what Matt Bellamy considers "minimalist" is what the rest of us would describe as "absolutely bleeding monumental" - and, sure enough, Absolution is shot through with mad effects, unorthodox scales, and jaw-droppingly inventive guitar sounds. TG caught up with him during Muse's recent Australian tour and asked, 'How on earth do you do it?'
- The guitars on the new album sound immense. What's your secret?
Well in a studio environment you can really test amps out against each other and find out what sounds best. I went through a lot of different cabs and heads but ended up using a Diezel head with a Soldano cabinet. It was the best sound I could find so I used that on everything. And I'll be using that exact set-up live as well. The good thing about the Diezel is that it's MIDI controllable, which means I can plug my guitar straight into the amp and have the effects just going through the effects loop.
What I use is a Line 6 Echo Pro, which is actually a studio unit. And because it's MIDI-controllable, it means I can have it on a rack next to the amp, leaving the signal between the guitar and the amp completely clean. It just goes straight from me into the amp, with the Echo Pro running parallel. So when I hit my MIDI foot-controller the amp brings it into the loop.
- How did you go about capturing those sounds in the studio?
Basically the cabinet had about 20 microphones in front of it! I couldn't tell you which particular ones were which, as there were so many different microphones there. But all of the leads were coming into a mixer. Obviously the mixing desk was a really big one and because we're only a three piece band, we would put a lot of mics on our instruments and mix different microphones together to get a sound. We would just go through them all and on some songs, we'd have like four mics on at once while others would have just one. Then on some other songs we'd have a little of all of them. That approach gave us a lot of manoeuvrability. We actually mixed the album on the same mixing desk that the Beach Boys used for Pet Sounds. That was Rich's (Costey, producer) idea.
- How did your approach differ from previous albums?
In the past I was layering guitars quite a lot but this time I wanted to get just one guitar part to stand out and be just perfect. On the last album [Origin Of Symmetry] for example, on songs like Citizen Erased or Micro Cuts, I did a lot of multiple guitar parts. But when I went to do it live, I actually found myself simplifying the guitar parts and found that the simple parts were much more effective and much more powerful sounding. So in making this album, instead of recording the songs in layers, I was actually working on the parts a lot more before I recorded them.
- Did you use any weird tunings?
It's mostly in standard tuning. But there were a couple of songs where I used different ones, like on Stockholm Syndrone, which has a drop D tuning, and Blackout, which has standard tuning all the way through but with the D string dropped down to a Db, just for a couple of notes at the very end. And on Thoughts of a Dying Atheist I have a capo on the 10th fret.
- Did you experiment with any new guitar techniques?
I've been influenced a little bit by a System Of A Down especially on songs like Stockholm Syndrome. I was getting into that kind of fast speed metal-type riffery, which is something I've never done before. Actually I know I'm going to completely contradict what I said before but, on Time Is Running Out, instead of recording the normal chords, I actually broke the chord down into its individual notes and recorded them all individually, and kind of built up the chord that way.
- You mean the same approach that Def Leppard used for Hysteria?
Yes exactly! I did that on a couple of songs, but I always stayed within the realm of one overall guitar part. Like if I was doing multi-layer guitars, I would break down the strings into smaller parts, so it wouldn't get too out of control.
- You're famous for using unique custom-made Manson guitars. Did you use anything more conventional on Absolution?
Apart from the Mansons I just used a Gibson SG - I think it's a 1962. It's technically a Les Paul but looks like a SG, as back then Les Pauls used to look like what SG's look like now. So it's basically an SG but it's got this really fat neck, much fatter than a normal SG, with a tremolo on it as well. I used that guitar on Hysteria and on Time Is Running Out.
- What's your backline like these days? Are you still using Marshall JCM2000s?
I had to completely change my amp set-up for this record. When I was starting out years ago, I was using quite a lot of different amps really, often three at the same time. I had a Matchless, a Fender Deville and a Marshall stack, all with loads of effect pedals. I was kind of thinking it was getting to be too much gear to be carting around. I also found that going through all the effects was taking away from the tone of the guitar. So I ended up stripping it all down and starting from scratch. And that was when I started using just the JCM 2000, which - along with a Line 6 delay (DM4) and a Digitech whammy pedal - was all I used for the past couple of years.
"But now I've completely changed my sound because I've found this new Diezel. It's a German high gain valve amp and the sound of it is just unbelievable. They're very rare and very hard to find. You can only get them hand built, but the sound you get is absolutely pristine! It's got four channels with four different valves in them that create completely different tones. I used that for virtually everything on the album.
- Do a lot of your riffs and guitar lines come from just the band jamming together or do you actually map them out ahead?
A lot of the riffery stuff does come from jamming with the band, just kind of playing through stuff and suddenly something will happen and we kind of go with it. But at the same time again I'll spend a lot of time on the piano. It's such a different mood when I play the piano. But then when I pick up the guitar, it's like I can't believe how powerful it is and how much more stuff you can do with it. So the first few minutes after I pick up a guitar after I've played the piano for hours, I seem to come up with loads of ideas, simply because of the contrast.
- Does your fondness for the piano influence the way you play guitar?
Well the first instrument I got into was actually the guitar. The piano was just something that I would play just for fun every now and then. When I was 13 or 14 it was the guitar that made me really want to get into music. I wasn't into classical music back then; I was into grunge and Jimi Hendrix and stuff. So what got me into the guitar was more the loose and out of control kind of improvisational guitar playing, with lots of mistakes. But then when we recorded our first album [Showbiz] I started to become interested in the piano again, because we had a song on the album called Sunburn and it didn't sound very good on the guitar so I had to work it out on the piano. It took me ages because at that time I hadn't played the piano for many years. But when we recorded it I was very happy with the result and at that point I decided to start working on the piano more.
- So it was only once you'd got into piano playing that you embraced the more technical, classical side of things?
Yes. I don't know why that is, but I think it could be something to do with the early 20th century piano music [that I was listening to]. It's very emotional but at the same time quite technical as well. I found that an interesting concept because with the guitar it seemed you could only be either emotional or technical, and it seemed you couldn't do both. But the piano helped me understand that it was possible to make music that was technical and also emotional at the same time. So for that reason I think the piano playing started to influence the songwriting on Origin of Symmetry, and probably a lot more on this album as well. It obviously has an influence on the way I'm thinking about playing chords on the guitar too.
- Do you do get to do much writing when you're out on the road?
Yeah, ideas are always coming and going in soundchecks and when you're hanging around in hotel rooms with your acoustic or whatever. I don't usually write stuff down because I kind of believe if something is good, then you'll just remember it. I think it's the same as when you hear a catchy tune or something you really love and it sticks in your mind. The same thing applies to when you're writing music. You shouldn't have to write things down and make demo tapes of everything you do.
- Have you ever thought about doing a solo album?
I don't know, I can't see a reason why I would want to work with a different drummer or a different bass player. In terms of exploration, maybe other people could be added to the band - that's something I imagine we could try. But in regards to Dom and Chris, if I was ever going to make music there's no-one else I would really want to work with.
- What are your thoughts on the current British rock scene and on bands like The Darkness?
Well I do know The Darkness very well. It's a very retro '80's sound. I find music that is retro very entertaining but it doesn't really say anything to me about my life. It's not something I can really relate to but at the same time, I can appreciate it from an entertainment point of view. I think that's the same with the garage punk music that's going on as well. It's entertaining and interesting but nothing I can relate to. Personally I'm more interested in music that is looking to move forward as opposed to moving backwards.
- What can we expect from Muse in the future?
What the immediate future holds is a load of arena shows around Europe. It's the first time we're doing that kind of thing so we're getting in all these video screens and we're going to put on a big kind of show. We're also planning to do a fair bit in America, as last time we didn't do much over there. On this album we're definitely going to do a lot more touring over there. Apart from that, I really can't say what's going to happen in the long-term future. I can't see that far ahead.
Read more at Totalguitar.Co.Uk.